I have no quarrel with TIME magazine devoting a cover to Glenn Beck -- so long as the accompanying story sticks to hard facts and harsh truths. The issue coming tomorrow, online today, sadly fails to do so in an apparent effort to woo the rightwing with a ludicrously "balanced" treatment of equally dangerous and wacko "ranting" coming from left and right.
It starts right away with a first paragraph that claims that only "liberal sources" estimated the protest crowd in D.C. last weekend as about 70,000, while conservatives say up to a million or more. Actually, virtually all mainstream media sources (even some on Fox News) endorse a far lower number. PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking site, cited an officer for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Department telling a reporter that, unoffically, he thought between 60,000 and 75,000 people had shown up.
If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic.
In this nugget TIME's David Von Drehle revealed his method. The "left" says one thing, the "right" another and, hell, who is to know the truth? He returns to this late in the piece by raising the crowd estimate gap again and explaining it as merely "who do you trust?"
Repeatedly he refers to mere "suspicion and feelings of helplessness" -- as if that was all to the ugly words and behavior we have seen, and that it was a natural response to Obama's "takeover," not something darker, and Beck-related. Ditto for casting these Americans as "scared" -- but why and on what basis are they scared?
There's a scattering of extreme Beck quotes lost in many paragraphs on the money deals. And groups like Media Matters are accused of "cherry picking" the bad ones. But then, they are just part of the "rant industry" on the left. There's a long, long graf quoting Beck on 9/11 and the Freedom Towers but no mention of his attack on the 9/11 widows. It notes his assault on the Obama "czars" and "he has some radical-sounding sound bites to back it up."
Ignorance and possible racism are never raised, despite polls showing that frightening numbers of conservatives believe that Obama was born in Kenya or may, in fact, be the "anti-Christ." (Don't miss David Brooks claiming for these people "race is largely beside the point" in his latest column).
And consider this, early in the piece:
The old American mind-set that Richard Hofstadter famously called "the paranoid style" -- the sense that Masons or the railroads or the Pope or the guys in black helicopters are in league to destroy the country -- is aflame again, fanned from both right and left. Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you'd think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.
Notice that the paranoia is said to be fanned equally by left and right. Also the lunatic fears of goosestepping children contrasted with Brownshirtism -- some elements of which we did see at town halls and elsewhere, not to mention in statements and signs at the D.C. protest.
Beck, meanwhile, is only a mere "exploiter" of paranoia, Birtherism and fear, not a prime architect. Von Drehle pictures him as merely an "entrepreneur of angst in a white-hot market. A man with his ear uniquely tuned to the precise frequency at which anger, suspicion and the fear that no one's listening all converge." Conservatives are only driven by "economic uncertainty and political weakness." And Beck, hell, he is mainly just an "entertainer." He is compared to Al Franken, described as a lefty who made a lot of money ranting in the past -- as if Franken had not somehow gotten elected as a U.S. Senator in a moderate state.
You'd never know why there is an advertiser boycott of Beck's show and why so many have joined it. All you'd know is the organizer of the boycott is enjoying the "publicity." Von Drehle briefly quotes Beck's infamous claim that Obama hates white people--then hastens to add that Beck says he doesn't "actually" believe this. No harm, no foul.
One of my favorite lines, however, arrives when Von Drehle laments that trust in the mainstream media has reached a new low. And no wonder, given articles like this.
So all in all: TIME has run out.
UPDATE: Just got the print edition. In editor's note, Richard Stengel actually writes, "One of our jobs as journalists is to be the referee, the honest broker who sorts through the accusations and says, This is fact, and this is fantasy." Then explains that's why they put Von Drehle on Beck. To see cover image, go here.
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher and his latest book, his ninth, is "Why Obama Won." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GregMitch
Note: An earlier version of this column said that PolitiFact had joined leading media in endorsing the under-75,000 crowd size for the D.C. protest. Actually, as noted above, it cited that estimate from a Fire Dept. spokesman in this range and also called a hoax the aerial photo of the crowd circulated by conservatives that was actually several years old.